A young friend asked me why some words are considered “evil” and not proper for Christians to be using. Of course he understood about not using God’s name in vain, but he questioned about the use of various scatological and sexual terms. He also made the point of how so many of these words have become acceptable in society to the point where not many people are offended by them.
What I am presenting here are his questions and my responses. I trust this discussion between the two of us will be beneficial for others with the same questions.
Q. Why are some words "evil" to say, but others are not?
Society often dictates what is acceptable speech for the educated class, and what is considered to be vulgar. Words that are intended to be offensive are of course “evil” to say, in that we, as Christians, are not supposed to go around offending people. Doesn’t Paul say our conversation should be “seasoned with salt”? (Col. 4:6)
Q. As far as I know there is no passage in the Bible which says "Thou shalt not say certain words referring to bodily functions or sex.”
No, but it does give us principles to live by, including how we should conduct our speech. Besides, in this case words change, and the Bible was not written in English, so there could not be such specificity.
Q. Doesn’t culture dictate what words are unwholesome?
I would say that’s probably mostly true, but there are also words that you know by your conscience that you wouldn’t be saying in any conversation that took place with Jesus right next to you (which He is in Spirit).
Q. If you say a swear word in another language is it still swearing? That word is synonymous, but it's not the "evil" word, so wouldn't that be okay? Perhaps most people consider that swearing too, once they find out what the word means. However, what if you lied and told them the word translated to one of the "acceptable" words, instead of the "evil" word - how would they feel then?
What is it that Christ said about our thoughts reflecting our heart? Just because you use a foreign word that you know is “evil,” yet not understood by the person you say it to, that doesn’t change the fact that the word in it’s native tongue is considered to be “evil” and unacceptable for discourse. Foreign languages have their own equivalents of the “acceptable” version and the “obscene” version. If you choose to use the “obscene” version, you do so knowing that it is indeed obscene, so your heart is what dictates the meaning, whether or not your audience understands it.
Q. If it truly is culture which dictates which words are evil, then why can't culture change the list of evil words? Every day these words are becoming more acceptable, and yet it is still considered wrong for a Christian to use them.
Because there is such thing as an absolute truth. If a word was deemed by culture to be offensive for some reason, just because a major part of culture begins accepting it that doesn’t change the meaning or the reason for defining it as offensive. Every day the culture is defining more and more perversions as acceptable, but that doesn’t mean we as Christians should agree with them.
Q. I seem to remember being little and a certain word meaning to urinate was evil, but now it is being used more and more commonly, even by church members. What allowed this word to become less taboo, but not the others.
“Piss” is an interesting one. Look at a Strong’s Concordance for the KJV Bible and find the words “piss” and “pisseth” and see how many times they are used. I understand that in Elizabethan English this was THE word for urine. Now it is considered vulgar (which means “common”, belonging to the uneducated). I think it is because the educated class used Latin, which word “urine” is, and then “piss” was relegated to the speech of the vulgar when English itself was considered more vulgar to the educated class. But I have read books written in the 1800s which use the word “piss” in its proper context. I think part of the problem with that word is that culturally we don’t just sit around talking about bodily functions. Those who do tend to be making fun of them, which is how we got all the so-called “bathroom” or “potty” humor. More polite, educated people say, “I have to use the bathroom” (“restroom” or “toilet”) rather than “I have to piss.” “Pee” was just an abbreviated form of “piss” by using the first letter. So, to sum up, it is a matter of good manners not to be discussing toilet stuff in public. It is crude and vulgar to do so. Even if the words themselves are acceptable, look how they have been debased for
common language - “O S----” has nothing to do with using the toilet. “P--- off” has nothing to do with the toilet. Even words about sexual intercourse (such as “f---” or “screw”) are debased. The “f” word is considered offensive, so someone decided to substitute the word “screw” (we can guess as to this origin) for sexual relations. But how have both those words been debased now? First there is the “F--- you” or “screw you,” implying that you are to have sex with yourself. This immediately debases sex. But these words are used whenever one is talking about being taken advantage of, or used badly, or even suffering a setback - “I’ve been f---ed” or “He screwed me”. Do you see how these words have debased what God gave as a good gift? That’s a problem with lots of words we consider obscene. “Damn” means to condemn. When the word is used nowadays, does it really have anything to do with that? Or are we indeed calling condemnation on someone when we say “Damn you!” Are we condemning something when we say, “Damn it”?
Q. Then there are times when it's the intended meaning of the word. “Ass” was okay to use when referring to a donkey, but now it's taboo again even for that usage. It is evil to use it to refer to someone's posterior. What sense does that make?
Again, it is the use of a word. I believe the word “ass” for the rear end comes from the English “arse”. Don’t hold me to that, though. Anyway, “ass” is indeed an animal, and it is also acceptable to use the word to describe someone who is acting as that animal. When it is used to talk about someone’s rear end, it is a vulgar term that is shorter to say than “buttocks”. The more acceptable term nowadays is "butt”, which is the shortened version. I don’t know if this is a word that has ever been generally accepted as vulgar. But again, polite and educated people tend to avoid what is vulgar.
Q. One reason I can think of, is that not swearing sets Christians apart from non-Christians. This is many times an early-telling sign to non-believers that you might be a Christian. This seems like a very weak argument to me. Why does this have to be a way of setting us apart from non-believers?
Because the world relishes that which is vulgar, and the Christian does his best to avoid being a part of the world; we live in it, but we aren’t part of it. Educated people separate themselves from the uneducated in the same fashion - by not using vulgar language. (Although, nowadays, liberal professors seem to think they must be foul and offensive to be acceptable to the left. In the past you would never hear a professor or a lawyer, or a doctor, etc., use vulgar language - it was beneath them.)
Q. TV shows and movies have become very accepting in the use of these words, and if you go to any public school or university you would hear them used as much as any other word, and yet it is still considered wrong for Christians to say such words. Why?
Again, you are making your appeal to culture rather than to truth. TV, movies, and universities have all become accepting of homosexuality, sexual immorality in general, abortion, etc, and yet we as Christians don’t bend to what culture defines as acceptable. Think about this: the German culture decided ridding the world of Jews was acceptable, and even “Christians” joined in; were Christians correct in going along with what was acceptable?
Q. I guess my question about this is, do you know of any solid Biblical verses/passages which would explain why it is wrong to say these words?
YES! First, we should always use words for that which they were intended or else our language can be incomprehensible. How can you preach the Word if you can’t communicate? If you are trying to communicate with someone who has the minimum understanding of English, and you use vulgar language, where does that leave them? (That’s just an aside, by the way.) If you want to be considered educated and not vulgar, then sound like someone who is educated and not vulgar. If we are “Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20), we should properly represent him in purity and holiness. Rather than me quote it, look up Eph. 5:3-20 to see what Paul says about the use of obscene words and similar behavior such as crude jokes. What about James 3:9-12? Especially look at James 5:12. Prov. 4:24; Prov. 10:19; Prov. 10:31-32 - the Proverbs say much about proper speech.
This was pretty much the end of our discussion on this subject. Perhaps you will find this to be thought-provoking to the point where you will be careful of your own speech.